History, Research, and Current Themes

"The world needed John Brown and John Brown came, and time will do him justice." Frederick Douglass (1886)

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Saturday, October 26, 2013

News and Views--

Historic Trail for John Brown’s Connecticut Birthplace

The Torrington Historical Society is teaming up with the Northwest Connecticut YMCA’s Torrington Trails Network to create a hiking trail at the birth site of the city’s most famous native.  The two groups are coordinating volunteers to clear a new hiking trail of three-fourths of a mile at the John Brown Birthplace site on Saturday. The work is being done as part of the group’s efforts to make the historic site more accessible to the public. The site has been owned by the Torrington Historical Society since 2000.

New Daguerreotype of John Brown Emerges

John Brown documentary scholar and image expert, Jean Libby, contacted me earlier this month to examine a daguerreotype that has surfaced recently, the owner evidently intending to sell it at auction.   The dag is not characteristic of images of Brown that are more familiar to historians and students, and so it required closer examination.   My own inclination upon first hearing of the image was skepticism.  After all, in 150 years, it seemed logical to me that there were no surviving images of Brown that we have not seen. However, the longer that I examined it, studying the particulars of the face, it seemed harder and harder to deny that it is indeed the face of John Brown.  Jean Libby, the leading authority on Brown daguerreotypes and derivative images, pointed out that the photographer likely prepared the daguerreotype in two phases.  Since daguerreotypes are reverse images, he then made a daguerreotype of the first daguerreotype, thus effectively producing a real-life image of Brown.

The reversal correction on the part of the photographer probably accounts for some of the initial unfamiliarity evoked by the image.  However, the image is also unfamiliar in certain details because of Brown's appearance--especially his long, dark sideburns and a frontal view of his face, which provides a slightly different perspective on his nose.  Brown's sons humorously described their father's nose alternatively as resembling a "meat axe" or a "bird of prey."  These descriptions are better appreciated in this new daguerreotype.

Another unusual feature of the image is that he is very well attired, and even has a stud in his shirt collar.  However, this is probably explainable by the fact that it seems to have been taken in the early 1850s, at the point when Brown was still collaborating with the wealthy Simon Perkins, Jr.  Although the wool commission house of Perkins & Brown had folded in 1849, Brown actually continued a fairly successful partnership with Perkins, who had his own flocks and wool business.  Brown was also entangled in a number of law suits and legal demands that stretched through the early 1850s, requiring him to travel from Akron, Ohio throughout the northeast.  The image of Brown is perhaps the most "bourgeois," and this seems consistent with his profile as a businessman and wool expert in that era.   Too many have been poisoned by half-baked historical presentations and unfounded exaggerations of Brown's rocky business life prior to 1855, so this will surprise many who think he was just an abject failure.  However, notwithstanding his financial difficulties in the late 1830s and 1840s, Brown had somewhat improved through his highly successful work in sheep and wool in the later 1840s, and by his association with notable Ohio names like Oviatt and Perkins.   Most narrators in popular culture are clueless as to Brown's great success and reputation as an expert in "fine sheep and wool."  At any rate, Harvard University archives possesses a stud with small diamonds in the shape of a "B" that was owned by Brown, probably in this period.  (It was later gifted to Abraham Lincoln.)   So despite the novelty of seeing Brown attired like a prosperous businessman, there is nothing untenable about the dag in this regard.

I shared the dag with a prominent illustrator who has worked extensively in portraying Brown, and he too was stunned at the familiarity of important details, especially the hairline, which he found to be the same as in other dags of Brown.  There are other notable facial features--the shape of his closed mouth, the lines and shaped of the flesh near his nose, and the "wear-and-tear" around his eyes, all of which suggest Brown's aged appearance was already starting before he went off to Kansas in 1855.  While his hair was already starting to show signs of gray in the first part of the 1850s, he was obviously far more grayed in the late 1850s.

For evident reasons, I cannot post the image made accessible to me.  However, the image will probably be generally available once the dag is placed on auction.  Assuming its authenticity  and the general nod of approval from Brown scholars and others associated with his image, there is no doubt that this dag will bring a lot of money to the owner.   The appearance of this dag reminds us that just because we had not seen it, does not mean there wasn't more history to uncover.  This is true both in regard to images and documents. These discoveries are far more accessible to us today because of the internet, and so we should not be surprised that other discoveries are made.  For instance, I was recently informed about a letter, written the week after the Harper's Ferry raid in October 1859, by the superintendent of the armory, which had also gone to auction online.

This is a good lesson for narrators and cultural "experts" who think they know all there is about the Old Man, and rely on the opinions and hearsay of tour guides and academics with little grounding in the primary documents.   Much of what is already believed about Brown is untrustworthy and negative; and there is still more that may yet be uncovered that demands a revision of popular notions about the Old Man.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

154 Years Ago Today, John Brown and His Men Tried to Start the Second "American" Revolution

Brown and raiders leaving for Harper's
Ferry, Sunday night, Oct. 16, 1859
(artist unknown)
In 1859, October 16th fell on a Sunday.  That cold, rainy night was the time that Brown and his raiders left their Maryland farm, walking into the town of Harper's Ferry, Virginia [today in West Virginia, the state having been created four years after the raid].  As Brown surmised after extensive preparatory work, Harper's Ferry was completely vulnerable and taken off guard.  The two federal armories, Harper's Ferry and Springfield, Mass., were under civilian supervision, without a military presence of any kind.  This is why Brown knew that seizing the armory was a feasible strategy.

Brown left some men at the Maryland headquarters with different orders than those who went with him to seize the town and the armory.  It is often said that Brown seized the "arsenal," but the arsenal was only one part of the operation.  Properly speaking, Brown seized control of the town and the entire federal armory operation.

Although the number of raiders with him was small, Brown had sufficient men to carry out his plan, which was to make a quick strike, rally available enslaved men, gather important hostages (slaveholders) from the immediate vicinity, and withdraw to a strategically advantageous position.  From that position, he intended to barter hostages for more enslaved men before withdrawing into the mountains nearby.  There is ample witness, even from local testimony, that had Brown gone into the mountains with his men, it would have been almost impossible to get him out or stop his movement deeper into the South.  (Because I am writing on these matters now, I'm not going to give explicit citations, but it was the opinion of both a local political figure and the armory superintendent that Brown's mountain strategy was very strong.  Brown himself stated that he and his men had spent considerable time exploring the mountains surrounding Harper's Ferry, and that he knew them better than many of the locals did.  I do not think that was a vain boast.)
Brown's Plan (Jacob Lawrence)

Typically, historians immediately project failure into the raid by discussing the death of Hayward Shepherd, the black porter and "freeman" at the train depot.  None of Brown's men were pleased at the killing of Shepherd, but there is good evidence that Shepherd was deliberately killed because he was extremely difficult, refused to cooperate, and was trying to get away to warn whites in the vicinity.  Apart from some of the slaveholders who tried to fight Brown's men, Shepherd was probably the most troublesome figure at Harper's Ferry.   Shepherd was of that stripe that Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and Malcolm X later referred to as a "house" servant.  He may not have been enslaved on a plantation, but he was entirely bound up in the interests of the slave masters, which had become a source of income and prosperity for him.  A liberated black man, he was a token in the community, since free blacks were not allowed to stay in Virginia; the community of slaveholders loved and trusted Shepherd completely because he was thoroughly their man.  His patron was the mayor, Fontaine Beckham, his former master, and Beckham and enabled him to amass money and property in a manner impossible for his enslaved brethren.  Apparently, Shepherd did not care that his prosperity was made in spite of the plight of his brethren, and he was willing to risk his life and disdain every warning from Brown's men, even to the point of trying to sneak over to the Maryland side to warn whites.   It is no wonder that local whites whined and wept over his death.  I doubt there was any mourning in the slave quarters for Hayward Shepherd; even Osborne Anderson, the only primary witness among Brown's men to write an account of the raid, spoke of Shepherd as an unfortunate but problematic figure.
Having failed tactically, Brown withdrew to make a last
stand at the HF engine house (artist unknown)

Shepherd's death was no signal that Brown was going to fail.  It only signified that Brown's men were consistently following orders.   The real problem with Brown's own tactical failures, which were signs to his men that things might not work out.  I respectfully disagree with Tony Horwitz on this point: I fully believe Brown's testimony regarding his failure, and I think it makes sense--he failed at Harper's Ferry because he delayed; he delayed because he became overly ponderous and worried over managing his hostages.  Brown bent over backwards to assure hostages and railroad personnel that he was not going to do them harm.  Brown let a train pass through and even walked the train across the bridge himself to assure the engineer that the train was not in danger.  When the night grew cold, he then made the lethal mistake of taking the hostages into the armory facility where it was warmer; he had intended to keep the hostages at convenient points of escape on the Maryland side of the bridge.  He wasted time "parleying" (as Anderson put it) with his hostages, in part trying to get them to agree to hand over choice enslaved men, and afterward trying to get them to agree to cooperate in a safe withdrawal from the town.  He pondered and got lost in his own extreme tendency to be excessively thoughtful; he became paralyzed long enough that opposition forces gathered and cut off escape routes.  John Brown failed at Harper's Ferry because of tactics, not strategy.  This is a long misunderstood and misrepresented point.
From John Hendrix, John Brown: His Fight for Freedom

Historians' attempts to belittle Brown's overall plan, and even the entry into Harper's Ferry itself, are not well founded.  Much has been made of Frederick Douglass' warning (of which we know only from Douglass) that Harper's Ferry would prove a "steel trap" for Brown.  Perhaps Douglass actually said this to Brown prior to the raid; but if he did, Douglass was speaking from ignorance.  Like others, he probably believed the town and armory were under military supervision.  But Brown conducted advance tours incognito, studied the whole town and operation meticulously (this was his nature), and had a plan that was quite good--except that it was time sensitive.  Brown admits to all of this in the journalistic accounts taken immediately after the raid, and repeatedly states these matters in personal letters from jail.

One of the pikes Brown designed to
arm the liberated slaves
The most unfortunate point missed in conventional (and often hackneyed) accounts of the Harper's Ferry raid is that Brown's larger plan--his intention to start a south-wide liberation movement was never tested.  I believe the invasion of Harper's Ferry was a political statement, as Robert McGlone has pointed out; but I hope to provide even more persuasive evidence than he does to that end.  Regardless, the raid was not Brown's plan, and his south-wide plan ought not to be dismissed as quixotic, simply because he failed to carry out his plans in the town of Harper's Ferry.   Had Brown withdrawn into the mountains, it is doubtless that he would have drawn many enslaved people away from plantations and farms, and that he would have been able to throw the entire South into a state of panic, offset the "peculiar institution," and become an entrenched movement that the small, undeveloped U.S. army could not have stopped, nor local militia effectively prevented from spreading across slave states as far as Texas.  The problem is serious consideration is rarely given to Brown's plan, nor is his plan placed in the context of the larger situation among slaves and slaveholders in the late 1850s.  Many local slave revolts had taken place, often overlooked by conventional historians.  Brown could have found ample opportunity in various regions to build his movement even further.  This was the material of which revolutions are made.
Original sketch of Brown's hanging (Alfred Berghaus)

Unfortunately, Brown failed--John Brown failed, and is to blame for his own failure.  However, as a man of faith and purpose, he did not fail to regroup and seize upon the next possible opportunity to serve the cause he loved.  As a prisoner, he decried any vain notion of rescue and he resented northerners who sent harassing letters to Governor Wise of Virginia.  He was a realist enough to see that his hanging would still serve the cause of the enslaved African.  Every evidence is that Brown found a sense of peace and spiritual contentment in the waning days and weeks of his life in Virginia.  He knew his martyrdom ("martyr" is a Christian word in its origins, which simply means "witness") would provoke the nation in both its best and worst inclinations; perhaps he understood, too, that since whites valued white lives above black lives, then his death would move whites in the North more than the deaths of many blacks.  Even his jailer later said that Brown seemed joyful on the day of his hanging, December 2, 1859.   Of course, I attribute this much to his Christian faith and belief in the divine purpose being fulfilled, regardless of human failure.  But Brown went happily to the gallows, hoping it would in some way make amends for his failed leadership, and even more that he would prove a hinge upon which would turn the next great movement for black freedom.

History has shown that he was correct.